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Temporary grave of an American machine-gunner during the Battle of Normandy.

A casualty in military usage is a person in military service, not necessarily a combatant, who becomes unavailable for duty due to death, injury, illness, capture, desertion, etc.; or a civilian casualty.

In civilian usage the word "casualty" is properly used for a person who is killed, wounded or injured by some event, and is usually used to describe multiple deaths and injuries due to violent incidents or disasters. Casualties is sometimes loosely used or (mis)understood to mean fatalities, but non-fatal injuries are also casualties.

Military usage

In military usage, a casualty is a person in service killed in action, killed by disease, disabled by injuries, disabled by psychological trauma, captured, deserted, or missing, but not someone who sustains injuries which do not prevent them from fighting. Any casualty is no longer available for the immediate battle or campaign, the major consideration in combat, and the reason for lumping together all these different cases. The word has been used in a military context since at least 1513.[1]

Civilian casualties are civilians killed or injured by military action, sometimes instead referred to by the euphemistic expression "collateral damage".

NATO definitions

The military organisation NATO uses the following definitions:


In relation to personnel, any person who is lost to his organization by reason of being declared dead, wounded, diseased, detained, captured or missing.[2]

Battle casualty

Any casualty incurred as the direct result of hostile action, sustained in combat or relating thereto, or sustained going to or returning from a combat mission.[2]

Non-battle casualty

A person who is not a battle casualty, but who is lost to his organization by reason of disease or injury, including persons dying from disease or injury, or by reason of being missing where the absence does not appear to be voluntary or due to enemy action or to being interned.[2]

Other definitions

These definitions are popular among military historians.

Irrecoverable casualty

In relation to personnel, any person killed in action, missing in action or who died of wounds or diseases before being evacuated to a medical installation.[3][4]

Medical casualty

Also known as sanitary casualty.

In relation to personnel, any person incapacitated by wounds sustained or diseases contracted in a combat zone, as well as any person admitted to a medical installation for treatment or recuperation for more than a day. There is a distinction between combat medical casualty and non-combat medical casualty. The former refers to a medical casualty that is a direct result of combat action; the latter refers to a medical casualty that is not a direct result of combat action[3][4]

Killed in action

A casualty classification generally used to describe any person killed by means of the action of hostile forces.[5]

Missing in action

A casualty classification generally used to describe any person reported missing during combat operations. They may have deserted, or may have been killed, wounded, or become a prisoner of war.

Wounded in action

A casualty classification generally used to describe any person who has incurred an injury by means of action of hostile forces.[2]

Prisoner of War

Any person who is held in custody by a hostile army during or immediately after an armed conflict.

Civilian usage

While the word "casualty" has been used since 1844 in civilian life,[1] it is a less important concept; the number of deaths on the one hand and serious injuries on the other are separately of major importance, and immediate availability for service is not.[citation needed] These numbers are usually cited together with or instead of total casualties.[citation needed]


Military and civilian fatalities

According to WHO World health report 2004, deaths from intentional injuries (including war, violence, but also suicide) were estimated to be 2.8% of all deaths.[6] In the same report, unintentional injury was estimated to be responsible for 6.2% of all deaths.[6]


  • Casualty – Definition from the Merriam–Webster Online Dictionary [1].
  1. 1.0 1.1 Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed gives a 1513 reference for military casualty, and an 1844 reference for civilian use
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 AAP-6, NATO Glossary of terms and definitions
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Military Medical Casualties". Retrieved 5 May 2013. ""Military Medical Casualties are losses during wars of armed forces personnel on account of wounds or other effects received from various kinds of weapons, as well as those who are admitted to aid stations or medical installations for more than 24 hours. Military medical casualties are one category of battle casualties, which also include what are called irrecoverable losses—those already dead or who die of wounds before reaching an aid station, those missing in action, and those taken prisoner. Military medical casualties usually greatly exceed irrecoverable losses—for example, the ratio was about 4:1 in World War I and about 3:1 in World War II. A distinction is made between combat and noncombat military medical casualties. The former refers to casualties that are the result of wounds, trauma, burns, ionizing radiation contamination, poisoning, and frostbite; the latter refers to casualties that are the result of noncombat injuries and diseases not related to weapons."" 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Krivosheyev, G. F., ed. "Россия и СССР в войнах XX века: Потери вооруженных сил: Статистическое исследование" (in Russian). Russia and the USSR in the Wars of the Twentieth Century: Losses of the Armed Forces. A Statistical Study. 
  5. "U.S. Department of Defense Dictionary: killed in action". Retrieved 2007-02-04. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 World Health Organization (2004). "Annex Table 2: Deaths by cause, sex and mortality stratum in WHO regions, estimates for 2002" (pdf). The world health report 2004 - changing history. Retrieved 2008-11-01. 

Further reading

  • America's Wars: U.S. Casualties and Veterans [2]. Infoplease.
  • Online text [3]: War Casualties (1931), by Albert G. Love, Lt. Colonel, Medical Corps, U.S.A.. Medical Field Service School, Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania. The Army Medical Bulletin Number 24.
  • Selected Death Tolls for Wars, Massacres and Atrocities Before the 20th Century [4].
  • Statistical Summary: America's Major Wars [5]. U.S. Civil War Center.
  • The world's worst massacres [6]. By Greg Brecht. Fall, 1987. Whole Earth Review.
  • Twentieth Century Atlas – Death Tolls [7] [8] [9] [10] [11] [12] [13] [14] [15].
  • Gifford, Brian. "Combat Casualties and Race: What Can We Learn from the 2003–2004 Iraq Conflict?" [16]. Armed Forces & Society, Jan 2005; vol. 31: pp. 201–225.
  • Kummel, Gerhard and Nina Leonhard"Casualties and Civil-Military Relations: The German Polity between Learning and Indifference." [17].Armed Forces & Society, Jul 2005; vol. 31: pp. 513–535.
  • Smith, Hugh. "What Costs Will Democracies Bear? A Review of Popular Theories of Casualty Aversion." [18]. Armed Forces & Society, Jul 2005; vol. 31: pp. 487–512
  • Van Der Meulen, Jan and Joseph Soeters."Considering Casualties: Risk and Loss during Peacekeeping and Warmaking." [19]. Armed Forces & Society, Jul 2005; vol. 31: pp. 483–486.
  • Bennett, Stephen Earl and Richard S. Flickinger. "Americans’ Knowledge of U.S. Military Deaths in Iraq, April 2004 to April 2008." [20]. Armed Forces & Society, Apr 2009; vol. 35: pp. 587–604.
  • Varoglu, A. Kadir and Adnan Bicaksiz"Volunteering for Risk: The Culture of the Turkish Armed Forces." [21]. Armed Forces & Society, Jul 2005; vol. 31: pp. 583–598
  • Ben-Ari, Eyal. "Epilogue: A ‘Good’ Military Death." [22]. Armed Forces & Society, Jul 2005; vol. 31: pp. 651–664

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